Searing ‘Separation,’ Surprising ‘Miracle,’ Marginal ‘Chronicle,’Wearying ‘Woman’

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FS
Contributing Writer

 

“A Separation”

A powerful drama of domestic discord that leads to broader social and legal problems, the Iranian film “A Separation” (Angelika) is nominated for an Academy Award and is a virtual shoo-in to win.

The film begins with a secular, middle-class couple appearing before a magistrate to request a divorce.

She wants to emigrate; he refuses, because his father suffers from dementia and needs him.  Their teen daughter is caught in the middle.

When the wife goes to stay with her mother, her husband hires a devout woman to tend to his father during the day.  But when he returns one day to find the old man alone, he fires the woman and forces her out of the apartment. She falls and suffers a miscarriage, and soon the man is charged with murder and responds with an accusation of elder neglect.

The script revels in ambiguity.  Did the man know his employee was pregnant?  Would her husband have approved her taking the job?  And why did she leave the old man alone?  Talk about compensatory “blood money” and ultimate responsibility soon enters the picture.

“A Separation” is about familial dysfunction – and the effect that adults’ bad behavior can have on their children.

But it also raises questions about the religious and moral barriers people erect between one another, and about how the justice system can complicate disputes rather than resolve them.

Though it’s in Farsi, the film transcends national and linguistic boundaries with themes that are universal. And it’s brilliantly made.

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“Big Miracle”

One might approach “Big Miracle” (wide release) with trepidation.  Based on a 1988 incident in which a large number of people joined forces – despite their political, ethnic and economic differences – to save three whales trapped by Arctic ice, it’s obviously a blatant attempt to fashion an uplifting, feel-good tale.

But while undeniably manipulative, the movie is unexpectedly charming.

That’s primarily the result of its cannily chosen human cast.  Though Drew Barrymore is overly shrill as a Greenpeace activist who spearheads the rescue effort, John Krasinski is an amiable presence as the TV reporter who breaks the story of the whales’ plight, and a talented supporting cast – including Ted Danson as an oil man with an eye toward good PR – adds to the picture’s overall winning character.

It’s really a minor miracle how pleasant “Big Miracle” turns out to be, and fanciers of “Free Willy” should be happy to have a double-feature candidate.

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“Chronicle”

A bargain-basement version of “X-Men” with a heavy dose of teen angst told in the “found footage” style of “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity,” “Chronicle” (wide release) has its moments but sputters out in the final reel.

It’s a pretty simple plot.  Three high-school guys get telekinetic powers as the result of an encounter with some unexplained underground entity.  Soon they’re moving objects by mental power alone and even taking to the skies.

Unfortunately matters change when one of them – a bullied kid with an alcoholic father and dying mother – is seduced by the dark side and begins to misuse his abilities.

The early stages of “Chronicle” are actually quite good, with Dane DeHaan giving a strong performance as the troubled teen and the special effects working nicely.

But the “found footage” technique is by now a tired formula, and the final act of the picture comes off like bad outtakes from “Superman II,” with two of the trio flinging buses and cars at one another over the urban landscape.  The effects deteriorate as well.

Ultimately “Chronicle” isn’t terrible, but it’s not great either.

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“The Woman in Black”

England’s Hammer Studios, known for classy horror films in the ‘50s and ‘60s before shutting down, returns under new management with “The Woman in Black” (wide release), a slow, creaky haunted-house movie starring Daniel Radcliffe in his first post-“Potter” role.

Radcliffe plays a Victorian-era lawyer who encounters the spooky titular presence when he visits a crumbling Yorkshire estate to go through a dead client’s papers.

The malevolent spirit is revealed to be behind the deaths of local children, and the lawyer’s own young son is threatened.

The locations and production design of the movie are visually quite impressive considering the modest budget – as was always a Hammer trademark.

But as a whole the movie is so gloomy and turgid, with endless shots of the hero wandering about the house’s dark hallways, that it could serve as a soporific.  And its employment of the hoariest clichés of the genre – sudden bumps in the night, mechanical toys that spring to life, swift-moving apparitions, creatures that suddenly burst into frame – makes for laughs rather than shudders.

Radcliffe should have brought along Harry’s wand to wish “The Woman in Black” away–or at least off his resumé.

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